The worst positions in baseball -- and how to fix them
Before the playoffs began, I asked A's general manager Billy Beane what he liked best about his club. "Baseball teams are very mathematical," he said. "You can have a star player like Mike Trout and completely nullify his performance if you have two players that are really bad. We don't have bad players. All 25 players are very specific players with very specific roles.
"We're a mutual fund, and we're a value fund. We've got a bunch of equities earning three to nine percent. We don't have a 20 percent and we don't have a negative 20 percent."
Oakland was one of just 10 teams last year that did not have a player qualify for the batting title with an adjusted OPS of 100 or less. Six of those teams made the playoffs. The lesson is to avoid the negative-20-percenters. Don't give too much playing time to lousy players, which can negate the advantages of your very good players -- and if you do have such a problem, fix it.
The 2013 playoff field was filled with teams that smartly found a remedy after getting the worst output in their league at a specific non-pitching position. For instance, after ranking last in the AL in OPS+ by rightfielders in 2012, the Tigers signed free agent Torii Hunter and then zoomed to fifth in the league in 2013.
Other teams that ranked last in their league in position-specific OPS+ in 2012 but found playoff-worthy answers in 2013 included Cincinnati in centerfield (Shin Shoo-Choo), Boston in centerfield (a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury), Atlanta at shortstop (a full season of Andrelton Simmons), Cleveland in leftfield (an improved Michael Brantley) and Beane's own value fund in Oakland behind the plate (Derek Norris, John Jaso and Stephen Vogt).
We love to talk this time of year about teams' "wish lists." Sure, everybody wants an impact bat and a front of the rotation arm. But what teams should focus on is improving the areas most in need -- to rid themselves of the negative-20-percenters that are a drag on the impact of the productive players.
We're here to help with those "to-do" lists. Presenting the worst positions in baseball: the ones that returned the lowest OPS+ in each league in 2013. Among the 17 worst everyday positions in baseball (catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, leftfield, centerfield and rightfield in each league and designated hitter in the AL) two themes are most apparent:
• Despite the highest payroll in baseball, the New York Yankees are the only team that carried four of the worst positions in their league.
• Of the 11 teams that had one of the worst positions in baseball, only one of them overcame it to make the playoffs (Pittsburgh, rightfield).
What follows is a review of the worst positions in baseball, and a suggestion on how to find a solution -- just as the Tigers, Reds, Red Sox, Braves, Indians and Athletics did after last season.
NL: Miami Marlins (52 OPS+): Might as well start with the absolute worst position in baseball, the one with the lowest OPS+. Miami mostly used Jeff Mathis and Rob Brantly, with a bit of Miguel Olivo and Koyie Hill sprinkled in. They combined for 164 strikeouts and a .194 batting average and nine home runs.
Solution: None on hand, which continues a long tradition of turnover behind the plate since Ivan Rodriguez in the Marlins' 2003 championship season. Mike Redmond, Paul Lo Duca, Olivo, Matt Treanor, John Baker, Ronny Paulino, John Buck and Mathis have all had turns since then. Miami might as well trade for Ryan Hanigan of Cincinnati even though he hit .197 and had a .567 OPS.
AL: Chicago White Sox (60): Do you wonder how in the world Carlos Ruiz, who turns 35 in January, can get a three-year deal from Philadelphia? (By the way, the Phillies shouldn't expect much for their money given his age. Over the past 75 years, only three NL catchers at least 35 years old have played 120 games with an OPS+ of at least 100: Mike Piazza, Benito Santiago and Alan Ashby). Good catchers are hard to find. Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley each were handed auditions on the South Side but neither one cemented the job.
Solution: Sign free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is just 28 and had a career-high 118 OPS+ for Boston this past season.
NL: Milwaukee Brewers (62): The only decision worse than playing Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop is playing him at first base, which Milwaukee did in 55 games. Fifty-five! He returned a .220 OBP at the position. How could the Brewers have been surprised? Betancourt is one of only 11 players in baseball history with an OBP as low as .285 with 4,000 at-bats.
AL: New York Yankees (78): Lyle Overbay sprinkled in some key hits and provided solid defense, but he was a major step down from Mark Teixeira -- even a declining Teixeira. The 10 Yankees first basemen hit .229/.292/.397.
Solution: A healthy Teixeira, despite a streak of five straight years of declining OPS, is welcomed back at age 34.
NL: Chicago Cubs (61): Darwin Barney may be a splendid fielder, but he has regressed in each of the past two years as a hitter. Barney is a 1960s-style middle infielder -- he doesn't walk, steal bases or hit for a high average -- and there comes a point where his glove just isn't enough to secure his job.
Solution: Barney gets another chance to reverse his decline, while prospect Javier Baez gets another year of seasoning before he forces Chicago to decide on a middle infield alignment of Baez and Starlin Castro.
AL: Toronto Blue Jays (57): This was the worst position in the AL. Macier Izturis (55 games) and Emilio Bonifacio (54) were the most-used players at the position by Toronto -- which got an ugly .216/.258/.297 output and only 53 runs scored from it.
Solution: Trade for All-Star and Gold Glove winner Brandon Phillips, who seems likely to be dealt by Cincinnati.
Solution: Move second baseman Derek Dietrich to third base.
AL: New York Yankees (73): Yes, it's somehow true: the Yankees paid a certain third baseman $28 million and had the worst production in the league at that spot. (Cleveland and Chicago actually tied them with a 73 OPS+, but New York "wins" the tiebreaker with the fewest home runs, 12).
Solution: The Yankees need at least one left-side infielder (Stephen Drew? Jhonny Peralta?) and may need to later trade for a real third baseman (David Freese?) depending on the appeal of a PED suspension by Alex Rodriguez, their 38-year-old third baseman, who is a .269 hitter over the past three years while missing 45 percent of the team's games.
NL: New York Mets (66): Ruben Tejada lost his job to Omar Quintanilla, a 32-year-old journeyman with a career .288 OBP. This is not the definition of progress for a team in a perpetual state of rebuilding in a major market.
Solution: Sign Peralta, a compromise in defensive range but a start toward finding at least three major league bats for a woeful lineup.
AL: Kansas City Royals (62): It's hard to believe that Alcides Escobar started 74 games in the first or second spots in the batting order. His OBP last year was .259. His career OBP is .295. You do not want him anywhere near the top of the lineup, especially for nearly half the season. It seems obvious. But then, these are the Royals. It was not obvious to manager Ned Yost.
Solution: Escobar turns 27 next month and is signed through 2015, with two option years, so he is not going anywhere. He might bounce back. Taking more than 19 walks would be a start. Just don't bat him first or second.
NL: San Francisco Giants (79): Gregor Blanco provided capable work in his 64 games there, the most among the nine players the Giants tried. The problem is that none of them provided any power. San Francisco leftfielders hit fewer home runs (5) than Cubs pitchers (6).
Solution: Former Giant Nate Schierholtz (21 homers for the Cubs) looks even better now.
AL: Toronto Blue Jays (83): The Jays lost a bet on Melky Cabrera bouncing back from his PED suspension. Cabrera showed little pop (2 homers, .348 slugging), but he was never healthy. He was slowed and then stopped by a benign tumor near his spine, which may have been related to weakness in his legs and an ankle injury.
Solution: A healthy Cabrera gets one more chance to make good on his two-year, $16 million contract.
NL: New York Mets (68): Juan Lagares is a premier fly chaser, but he can't get on base often enough (.281 OBP) to keep a full-time major league job. He is a reminder why having your Triple A team in Las Vegas produces fool's gold; Lagares hit .346 in that hitter's haven.
Solution: The Mets should invest in Choo or Ellsbury, but they have no inclination to spend that kind of money on one player. Curtis Granderson may be in their wheelhouse.
AL: Houston Astros (60): For a team that lost 111 games, it's surprising the Astros hold only one of the nine AL worst position spots. Houston gave Brandon Barnes a surprisingly long run (445 plate appearances) considering how badly he hit. Barnes became the first outfielder in AL history to strike out so much (127) with so few extra base hits (26). By the way, last year B.J. Upton of Atlanta became the first outfielder in NL history with so many strikeouts (151) and so few extra-base hits (23).
Solution: Top prospect George Springer, 24, is arriving soon. He batted .303/.411/600 with 37 home runs and 108 RBIs combined at Double and Triple A in 2013.
NL: Pittsburgh Pirates (80): Travis Snider didn't work out and Jose Tabata is a reminder of how long-term contracts for young players don't always pay off. Pittsburgh did address the problem for the stretch drive by renting Marlon Byrd for a month.
Solution: Gregory Polanco, 22, began 2013 in High A and finished in Triple A, posting an overall slash line of .285/.356/.434. He is the ultimate solution, though some combination of Snider, Tabata, Andrew Lambo or some marginal veteran to be named likely will serve as placeholders until June.
AL: New York Yankees (73). Oh, Babe. It's hard to believe the Yankees played Ichiro Suzuki in 150 games. His .342 slugging percentage was the second worst ever by a New York rightfielder with so much playing time and the worst in 107 years, since Willie Keeler in 1906.
Solution: Sign free agent Shin-Shoo Choo, who had a 143 OPS+ for Cincinnati in 2013, the second-highest of his career.
AL: New York Yankees (62): Talk about an epic fail. How does the most expensive team in baseball, playing its games in a bandbox of a ballpark, post a DH slash line of .189/.276/.307? The Yankees counted on Travis Hafner, who last made it through a season without breaking down in 2007 and did so again this past year while hitting .202/.301/.378. Fifteen others followed Hafner and were even worse.
Solution: Anybody but Escobar, Barney or Adeiny Hechavarria. Seriously. Among the 140 players who qualified last year, 137 of them had a better OPS+ than did the Yankees' DHs.